Travel With Bike

Travel With Bike

Above, the Seven Airheart, in Boston, just before its first adventure.

As cyclists we hold self-evident the truth that a bicycle with include the quality of any travel. I’ve taken that belief a step further by making sure I include a bike in all of my travel. However, I wasn’t able to take that step until I’d figured out a way to make flying with a bike an expense that wasn’t as pause-giving as a new clutch in an all-wheel drive car.

Let me back up a sec. I’ve been traveling with bikes for more than 20 years. I’ve shipped bikes by UPS, ridden trains with them, flown with them and even had one overnighted with FedEx. And yes, I’ve rammed them into a garage, or two. I’ve used everything from cardboard to what are seemingly the most durable cases ever to house a bicycle. At this point, I’ve seen it all. I’ve pulled bikes from cases that have been mauled by baggage handlers (anyone remember the American Tourister commercial?) only to find the bike was fiddle fit. I’ve also seen flattened top tubes and rear dropouts cold-set to a spacing of 5mm, though none of those were mine. 

How I used to do it.

For the last four years I’ve been traveling with a bike retrofitted with S&S couplers. The benefits that came with packing my bike into a 26-inch square case, from a standpoint of cost and ease, are as impossible to overstate as describing how big some black holes are. It was this reality, this slow education, that led to my conversation with Seven Cycles and the resulting product of that conversation, the limited-edition Seven Cycles Airheart. Even if the Airheart only serves as a template for a reader to find a framebuilder to retrofit an existing frame with S&S couplers, that alone will be service enough to make the project worthwhile. However, most people have more than one bike, and of the many dividends a second bike can confer, easier travel is hard to beat. So before I get to the actual review of the Airheart, I wanted to lay out the thinking that led to this bike.

Surprisingly, bike damage isn’t what drove this project. Airline fees and logistics are. Simply put, fees are on the rise. Less than a year ago you could fly a single checked bag for free with United; they’ve now normalized to what the other big carriers charge. Leg room, meals, luggage, wifi, they charge for everything except soda these days, and given the way the costs on snack boxes have risen, I’ve got to imagine $1 Cokes can’t be far behind. 

IMG_1983My Seven Axiom, retrofitted with S&S couplers, in Memphis.

But what about the bike? It used to be that you could fly with a bike in a standard case (or cardboard box, if your personal style ranged to swashbuckling) for all of $50. Internationally, they usually went free. Those days are as gone as Lance Armstrong’s career. It’s possible to argue over the minutiae of shipping vs. flying with your bike, or all the perks you get for flying business class (or first class) vs. economy, but traveling with a coupled bike wins on several fronts. Most people fly economy, and for good reason; you can tack on extra legroom, wifi, a meal and two checked bags and still pay less than you would for a seat in business class. With the money you save you could take your sweetie out for a nice dinner, which is smart given that this conversation is heading toward acquisition of yet another bike.

IMG_3844The S&S case doesn’t come with refreshments, unfortunately.

If you fly with a carry-on suitcase, you can fly a bike in an S&S case for $25 with the big carriers. With some of the budget carriers like Jet Blue and Southwest, it goes for free. Compare that to the $200 you’ll pay with most of the big carriers for domestic flights and $150 for international flights for any oversize bike case. I don’t expect those few sentences to make the case for how expensive air travel with a bike case has become, so I prepared the handy-dandy table below that gathers the info for the majority of routes readers are likely to encounter, save my friends in product management who head to Asia every three to five weeks. Those poor sods.

I’ll warn you now, you may want an antacid when you finish reading this.

Airline Oversize Standard size, first bag
Domestic Europe Domestic Europe
American $200 $150 $25 ($35 2nd) Free ($100 2nd)
US Airways $200 $150 $25 ($35 2nd) Free ($100 2nd)
United $200 $200 $25 ($35 2nd) Free ($100 2nd)
Delta $200 $200 $25 ($35 2nd) Free ($100 2nd)
Southwest $75 Free
Jet Blue $100 Free
Alaska $75 $25 ($25 2nd)
Air France $300 Free ($75 2nd)
Lufthansa $150 Free ($100 2nd)
British Airways $60/$100*
Virgin (Am./Atl.) $50 $60 $25 ($25 2nd) Free ($85 2nd)

Are you ready for more bad news? No? Too bad. The costs don’t end there. Traveling with a bike box or travel case requires a larger than usual vehicle to transport it. Most van services laughed when they saw my Bike Pro case. That can force you to rent an SUV or something of similar girth, or find a station wagon taxi, which can be harder than finding a Wall Street banker driving an economy car. The only time I’ve dodged this particular headache was when I was joining a bike tour and they had a van ready for such luggage.

I’ve fit an S&S case in the trunks of cars so small I had a hard time fitting in my son’s child seat. It fits on a bell captain’s luggage cart. Think of all the headaches you’ve ever encountered while traveling with an oversize box or case and then multiply them by zero; that’s what you get with an S&S case.

IMG_2187As with any luggage, TSA introduces a certain element of mayhem.

Once at a destination, an S&S case carries none of the attendant pain of, “Where the hell do I put this effing case?” I’ve stowed it in closets, beneath beds, on balconies and behind curtains. It takes up less room than the bike, which is the opposite of most cases, where it takes up more room than the bike, rather like a garage occupies more space than a car. Imagine folding up the garage when it’s not in use. Where’s that super genius, Wile E. Coyote, when you need him?

I’m fond of saying that I’m only on this spinning rock once that I know of. It’s become a guiding principle, of sorts. It’s a big world, and we should get out there and see it, with the help of a great bike. This is what led to the Seven Cycles Airheart, the review of which comes next.

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  1. Onomastic

    I have traveled with a coupled Seven for years. So very much better than life before.

    The S&S case has taken a lot of abuse over the years. I had to replace the latches a couple times and the handle once. The many dents had finally distorted the case to the point where I was afraid to use it. When considering a replacement, I discovered the Buxum Box, and ordered one. It’s pricier, but much more solidly built.

    Your readers may want to consider that alternative.

  2. John

    Funny – having used an S&S box for three European cycling trips I’m a fan. However, gone are the days where that second checked bag is free, and so I’ve thought that maybe it doesn’t make sense for the hassle any more, and a full-size bag is the way to go – $100 for the second bag versus $150-200 is kind of a wash for traveling every few years. I’ve also seen the Thule Round Trip Pro in person before, and it’s beyond slick – even has an integrated bike stand for assembly.

    I suppose it depends on how often you end up traveling with it. You do make a good point on how the large bag would fit in a car. Not to mention a hotel room or some of those phone-booth sized European hotel elevators.

    The Buxum Galibier looks interesting, as my S&S case took some damage this last trip. The only pictures of the unit appear to be on the Facebook page. I have to say, I rely on a little ‘flex’ in my box to accommodate a massive frame and the wheels – it bulges a bit where the hubs are. I’m not sure how the aluminum would hold up after multiple trips.

  3. brian ledford

    How have the s and s coupler packed bikes survived the TSA inspection? I wouldn’t be worried about me packing my bike, but I would be worried a unmotivated inspector mangling a bike/wheel/whatever repacking a bike.

    1. Don Guthrie

      Get the “TSA net” — it holds every thing in place and allows the TSA inspectors to avoid actually touching anything — and use zip-loc bags … it still seems to be testing their capabilities to actually open and shut the case …

  4. Champs

    In a Delta hub city, the SkyMiles credit card is fairly useful, and you get a free checked bag for each member of your group. Other cards may offer that if Southwest or JetBlue aren’t practical options.

    Travel by bike is a tricky subject, and you need the right horse for a specific course. I just don’t know that I could ever get enough from a full sized bike to make it worth the while. Even a Bike Friday Tikit and Travel System (standard-size travel case, convertible to trailer) is a stretch to justify (until I find myself needing a multimodal commute). Then again, why start being rational about bike things now?

  5. Tom Petrie

    S&S Travel Case Life Hack – make it a four-wheel case that’ll roll without having to lift one end (tedious if it’s a long walk through the airport)

    If you use an S&S Coupling travel case when you fly with your bike, you know how convenient it is. Sure, you’ve got to dis-assemble your bike and nest the wheels all the various pieces, but the upside is, you bike travels like regular checked luggage.

    Here’s how to make that case even more convenient. Affix aluminum plates to the inside and outside of the bottom of the case at the end opposite where the installed wheels are. Buy some 2-inch threaded casters and thread the plates so you can install and remove the casters by hand. You’ll risk having the casters hang-up in other luggage if you check the case with the casters installed (and it’ll also make the case over the over-size limit), so carry the casters in your carry-on luggage and install them by hand when you collect the case at your destination. Then, you’ll have a four-wheel case that’s very easy to handle, especially if it’s a long walk through the airport to the rental car pick-up. Thanks, and a hat tip to Bob Muzzy!

  6. Author

    Everyone: Thanks for your comments.

    The Buxum Box is intriguing, I’ll grant. My history in rock music included an inadvertent education in Anvil cases. What we learned was that the all-metal cases were more likely to be irreparably damaged, while the cases that included some plastic in the sides were more likely to take a blow and not bend permanently.

    Brian: Other than scratched decals, TSA has only lost one part so far, which was only a support for the case. The bike(s), structurally, have been perfectly fine. Every now and then, I have to grant a degree of incredulity. I hate that organization with a passion; I’ve had so many friends have stuff damaged/lost/stolen it’s hard for me to see the alleged good they do.

  7. Timojhen

    Agree on all of the travel points. Indulged last year in a Ritchey Break-away and very happy with it. Off the shelf, comes with a case and ended up being a lot cheaper. Since its a bike I don’t use frequently, made more sense for me. Maybe a Seven is my inevitable upgrade? 🙂

  8. Full Monte

    How long does it take to break the Airheart down, pack it into the case? And conversely, once at the hotel, how long does it take to unpack and reassemble?

    Really looking forward to your impressions on how it rides.

  9. MattC

    I was scheduled to fly to England a few years back for 3 months…so I bought a Ritchey Breakaway and built it up, and also opted for the optional 26″x26″ S&S hardcase (vice the rectangular soft-case the frame comes with). The only snag to my evil plan was the UK customs and border-protection people thinking they were going to score a MINT from me in customs (they held my bike for ransom for almost the entire 1st month, wanting over $800 US, and only gave in when I finally sent them a copy of my Gov orders showing I would be leaving in 90 days WITH my bike). And the month they had it was Feb, so it was pretty COLD and WET anyway. Other than that, the bike and case were fine, and what a joy to have a REAL bike of my own for the next 2 months!

    I REALLY LOVED riding the roads of Yorkshire in March and April (remember the 1st two Tour stages this year? THOSE were the very same roads I was on nearly every day!) That trip alone was worth the cost of the bike…and it’s come in handy for other trips since. Don’t regret a dime of that cost.

    Yes, there is some set-up/take-down time involved…and you really have pack it JUST RIGHT (critical parts of the hardcase are the PVC spanner pieces that keep them from crushing the bike….I was really worried TSA would open it and then not get them back installed….so I bonded them together except for the top-pieces, and glued them down to the bottom surface of the case…so when the open the case they stay put and they only have to put the top pieces back on the PVC pipes sticking up from the bottom. The TSA net was also a must-have.

  10. Pingback: The Seven Cycles Airheart | RKP

  11. John

    I use the interior mesh accessory which sort of packages everything so that TSA can open it, move things around, and it all stays together.

    My biggest issue is that given the size of my bike (62cm), it’s a tight fit. Even when assembled carefully in the comfort of my home, the hubs of the wheels will slightly deform the case – and this last trip actually punched through the material a bit. They also got pretty whacked out of true.

    The time to assemble/disassemble really depends on your wrenching ability and what you need to do to take your bike apart. Marking your saddle and stem height make it go faster. There are quick-connections for the cables which take a minute a piece, and the S&S coupler itself is easy. However, due to my frame size, I have to remove the crank. That takes a bit more time, even as I’ve moved from a square taper to Ultratorque BB. I also made the poor decision to S&S a vintage Merckx with pretty paint, so before I put it in I use foam pipe covers to protect every inch of the paint which takes time as well – those with Ti can be much less careful.

    Assembly is much easier and can be done, heavily jet-lagged, in 30 minutes. Dissassembly takes longer, with more swearing as I try to position the frame, wheels, and handlebar so that I can close the case.

    I can still get bike in the case in ~45 minutes even in a dark dirt parking lot in Gigondas while drinking a double Armagnac. It helps to practice at home, also with alcohol.

  12. Eric

    I have been traveling with my Lynskey for a few years and love the convenience and joy of having my own bike. I even appreciate the opportunity to do some extra wrenching as I pack and unpack the bike. For those unsure about the sturdiness of the boxes, I went cheap and use a heavy duty cardboard box reinforced with thermoplastic sheets and the S&S compression members, covered with the S&S ballistic nylon bag and I have had no breakage or damage, and the box has never been pierced. TSA almost always goes through the box and rarely puts it back together perfectly, and still no problems. I will admit my heart is in my mouth every time I open the box, but so far so good. I also carry a collapsible hand truck to lug the box around. It fits easily in the overhead bin as a carry on.

  13. mechaNICK

    A friend of mine was saying that he and his wife just mummify their bikes in bubble wrap and TSA usually leaves them alone. I guess they open the case and see more hassle than they’d like to deal with. I may try this technique next time I fly with a bike.

  14. Touriste-Routier

    I have a Ritchey Breakaway. I was looking at an S&S bike, but the economics weren’t working for me. And this was when checked luggage was still free. A few things people should consider when buying any travel bike:

    1) Standard airline liability laws in the US limits their liability to $1200 per piece of luggage. If you travel often enough, it might be not be a matter of if something will happen (damage, loss, theft), but when. I decided I wasn’t going to risk a $4k frame, when I could get one including the case) for less than this limit.

    2) Some cases are technically over sized according to the airlines (most use 62 linear inches). My Ritchey case is 64 linear inches, as is the S&S 12″ height case. Fortunately I’ve never been popped for the fee. My theory is that it looks close enough, and the soft case doesn’t strike the ire that hard cases do. People have taken a 2nd look, but no one has broken out a measuring tape on me, but if they did, I’d be SOL. Some of the bike manufacturers use misleading advertizing and cite their 64″ cases as being legal; it isn’t universal or absolute.

    3) Some airlines will try to charge you the “bike” fee regardless of if it is over size or not. I always deflect (meaning lie or bend the truth) when asked about the contents. Racing wheel chair, ergometer, and massage table have all passed muster (your mileage may vary).

    4) Sometimes you are better off to rent a bike. It might cost more, but you don’t have to risk damage, fees, or the hassle of packing and unpacking it, Even if you are good at it, it can be a royal pain, depending upon your schedule, and the number of times you can ride on your trip. But there is nothing like riding your own bike…

  15. Bill Cochran

    I have been using the S and S backpack soft case for the past two years. 4 International flights on it at this time and I love it. Easier to pack than the hard shell cases, and tons of extra space for clothes in the outside pockets. No damage to my painted steel frame, and no issues with TSA inspections. With lots of clothing in the pockets the total weight is still well under the 50lb. limit. I have yet to have an agent even begin to question “what’s in the bag”. Works great when you need to walk from a train station, or bus stop to a hotel. Easily fits into virtually all cars, even small sized Euro hatchbacks. Highly recommended.

  16. Jim Smith

    I’ve owned some sort of travel bike since 1999. At first, it was a Bike Friday. The bike was OK, not great, and I got tired of all the razzing about riding a toy bike. I bought an S&S coupled Independent Fabrications in 2004 and took it on many trips. However, it was steel and heavy so I sold it to a friend who’d borrowed it and loved it. I bought a custom Moots with Chorus 11. I call it a Moolnago because its geometry is, as close as we could make it, a replica of my beloved 59 traditional Colnagos. I just did two weeks in Sicily and will be heading to Maui in another two weeks (semi-retired, too much time on my hands). The bike is everything I’d hoped it would be. It’s off at my mechanic right now to have the S&S stem installed and the wheels, that the airlines had decided they didn’t like, trued.

    Some thoughts after 10 years of S&S:

    – I can usually put the bike together or stuff it in the case in 20-25 minutes. My wife complained about rental bikes and got her S&S Seven a couple of years ago. Her only mechanical task each year is dealing with her S&S bike and it takes her about an hour. I’m not allowed to help, although I do pump up the tires.
    – The coupling works well. I had a bit of trouble with the IF coming loose but just put the wrench in my saddle bag and checked it occasionally. No problems with the Moots.
    – I’m debating whether to use the pads to protect the ti or save 5 minutes and quit using them. I thought I wouldn’t care about unpainted ti but so far I do.
    – S&S coupled stem saves time. My wife has one on her Seven and once I was sure of size, I bought one for the Moots. It also means I don’t have to make sure I don’t over or under tighten the headset.
    – I had the 12″ case for the IF, got the 10″ for the Moots to be airline legal even though I’d never been charged for the 12″. After one trip, I’d say that’s a mistake. The case is harder to pack and the wheels are badly scratched and out of true (still rideable though), a problem I never had with the 12″ case.
    – Lezyne makes a nice travel pump that fits in the S&S case with the bike. It makes it a lot easier to pump up the tires than the big frame pumps I used to use.

  17. Neeta

    Seven is a fantastic bike.

    However, transporting it seems really hard, i am actually surprised with the money that goes into taking this into a flight !

  18. John

    Because people have been travelling by bike for several years now, it’s no surprise there are plenty of maps of bike routes all over the world. These are very useful when you’re planning your own bike tour. If you prefer, you can take guided bike tours as well. Make sure to go where you actually want to go, not just where the trails are easy. And don’t forget to consider the weather conditions at the time of year you plan on going. Once you knew where you want to go, check out these sites: Adventure Cycling Association (North America), Planning your own European Bicycle Tour, Spice Roads (Asia), Tour d’ Afrique Ltd. (Africa), DuVine Adventures (South America) and Cycling Tours Australia & New Zealand.

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